In the past year I have noticed a gratifying trend among undergraduates interested in Austrian economics that bodes well for the future of Austrian economics as a challenger to the prevailing positivist orthodoxy for the title of “mainstream economics.” Here are a few examples of this trend in the past month.
This past Thursday I was invited to participate on a panel at Temple University in Philadelphia to discuss the new fiscal stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration. The sponsoring organization was the Temple Economics Society which is the university’s official student economics club. TES is an extremely active organization that, for the past four or five years, has been led by successive groups of Misesian-Rothbardian students interested in Austrian economic theory and libertarian political economy.
These students have been very adept at both obtaining resources and maintaining the Austrian orientation of the organization over time. They have an office on campus that features a library of classic economic literature prominently featuring Austrian works. When I spoke on a panel at Temple two years ago, a senior was the President and the current President was a sophomore. When he graduates this year, a current sophomore will step in to head up the club.
What is especially unique and promising about the students associated with TES is that, on their own, they have concluded that “Austrian” economics is actually a neglected strand of mainstream economics. They also have the intellectual maturity to recognize that, if they wish to pursue Austrian economics as a vocation while earning their living as academic or research economists, they have the best chance of doing so by enrolling in top-notch mainstream graduate programs. Importantly, although they view mathematics as irrelevant to economic theory, they do not shy away from taking math courses. Nor do they make the common error of applying only to graduate economics programs that have an “Austrian” sympathizer or two or even a “free market” economist on the faculty.
For example, the current President of TES is a dual economics and mathematics major. He has been accepted into Syracuse’s Ph.D. program which emphasizes applied economics. Syracuse’s Ph.D. track in Urban Economics, the field he is interested in, includes urban, regional and real estate economics and ranks third in the U.S. and in the world. He is also waiting for a decision from University of Pennsylvania’s Ph.D program in Applied Economics, which is located in the prestigious Wharton School of Business . This program features tracks in Urban and Real Estate Economics, Behavioral Economics, and Public Economics and Political Economy, among others.
Applied Ph.D. programs like Syracuse’s and Wharton’s are amenable to Austrians because they deal more directly with real-world policy issues than conventional mainstream programs and avoid the empty mathematical modeling for its own sake that characterizes the latter. However, the applied programs do heavily stress econometrics so one must be well prepared mathematically.
This brings me to a second senior associated with the leadership of TES whom I spoke to. After graduation, he is taking next year off to beef up his quantitative skills by taking additional math courses. He too is inclined to enroll in an applied graduate economics program and is looking at Vanderbilt’s Graduate Program in Economic Development. This program features tracks in Finance and Banking, International Development, and Development of Institutions. While it is designed for those seeking a terminal M.A. degree, it also can serve as a pre-doctoral program. Participants who are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. at a later date are permitted to substitute core requirements by their corresponding Ph.D. courses, or to take Ph.D. courses as electives.
When I went to lunch after the panel with four Rothbardian TES members I was not asked once to recommend an “Austrian” graduate program–much to my surprise and delight. Rather the discussion revolved around the pros and cons of the grad programs they themselves had researched and applied to. None of them fretted that he would be “intellectually isolated”–a ridiculous complaint in this age of the Internet , Facebook networking, Mises.org, etc.
Nor did I hear any fear expressed that they would face hostility and resentment from faculty and fellow grad students. After all these students had sufficient intellectual fortitude to live and thrive, lead a well-funded student organization, and teach themselves and others Misesian-Rothbardian economics at a major urban university with no Austrians or libertarians whatever on the faculty. In fact my two co-panelists were left-leaning poli sci professors–one extremely so–who were seemingly pleased with the intellectual excitement and diversity these students brought to the campus. The TES was also able to engage as moderator a leading business and economics columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Here is one last example of the promising trend Iam talking about. Three weeks ago, I participated in a panel on the Global Recession at Stockton State College in New Jersey, sponsored by the Stockton Economics Society, the student economics club. I was invited by a freshman who is a hard-core Rothbardian and will be attending Mises University this summer. He too recognizes that he requires math skills to maximize his chances for admission to a good graduate program and is planning on combining a math minor with his economics major. The former coordinator of the department is a friend of mine and a quantitative economist herself who is sympathetic to Austrian economics. She will help shepherd our young Rothbardian through the requisite math courses.
It has become increasingly clear to myself and other senior Austrian economists over the past decade that advising Austrian-oriented undergraduates to enroll in specific graduate programs based on the number of Austrian, Austrian-friendly, or free-market economists that are on the faculty is a strategy doomed to failure. It is, therefore, very encouraging that Austrian undergrads have begun to recognize this on their own and, without any prompting, are turning their backs on this strategy.
In sharp contrasts, the enthusiastic and impressionable young Misesian-Rothbardians who enroll in so-called “Austrian” programs are invariably misled by the charisma, reputation or rhetoric of particular professors into thinking that what they are being taught is “Austrian” economics when in fact it is almost always a potpourri of different approaches combined with a libertarian bias toward policy analysis Moreover, the advice to seek out programs by counting the number of self-identified Austrians on the faculty severely and needlessly limits the number and quality of graduate programs that the student applies to. It is far better for students with a serious interest in pursuing a vocation in Austrian economics to be encouraged to explore the full range of mainstream graduate programs available, including applied economics, real estate and regional economics, management, entrepreneurship, organizations and institutions, business strategy, etc, with the understanding that these are simply alternative means to their goal of teaching and doing research in Austrian economics. Moreover, because Austrian economics is a unified body of theory with analytical implications for all of these real-world topics, the young Austrian with the requisite math skills has a comparative advantage in writing a dissertation and peer-reviewed papers in these diverse areas. It is far better to learn math than to unlearn the Austrian economic theory that one once knew as an undergraduate.